British reporter rescued from stricken Syrian town
Activists have rescued a photographer from the city of Homs, which is under attack from Syrian government forces. As fears grow for other trapped journalists, calls to arm rebels are mounting.
British journalist Paul Conroy is recuperating in Lebanon today after a dramatic rescue mission by Syrian rebels. Taking huge risks, they smuggled the injured photographer past hostile government troops and out of the besieged city of Homs, where thousands of civilians have been enduring weeks of brutal bombardment. Every day that passes, dozens more men, women and children are reported killed.
Conroy is now clear of the violence – but three other journalists are still trapped in the city, one of them seriously injured in the artillery attack that killed war correspondent Marie Colvin last week.
The situation for the three is desperate. During the Conroy rescue, opposition activists who were escorting him were hit by two bursts of shellfire from soldiers loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad. At least four are reported to have paid for their daring with their lives.
The few lines of communication between Homs and the outside world are steadily being closed down. Snipers surround rebel-held areas, shooting anyone they see in the open. A mysterious foreign-made drone has been seen flying overhead, picking out targets for Assad’s heavy mortars. Meanwhile, internet and telephone connections have almost all been shut off.
Those trapped inside the tightening ring of steel fear the worst. Assad is said to have dispatched his elite Fourth Armoured Division to the city. If this is preparation for a ground attack, it will be a massacre, as the lightly armed opposition fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army (the FSA) go up against steel-clad tanks.
A Libya-style international intervention has been effectively ruled out. But as the situation in Homs grows more dire, other countries are openly considering other ways to help the Syrian opposition.
The small Gulf state of Qatar, for example, has joined its neighbour Saudi Arabia in calling for heavy weapons to be sent to the FSA. Only with modern anti-tank missiles, they point out, do the rebels stand even a faint chance of stopping an armoured column.
Hearts versus heads
Observers point out several reasons for caution. First, arming the FSA could provoke Assad’s international backers into escalating their own efforts, broadening the conflict beyond Syria’s borders. Second, the FSA cannot necessarily be trusted. The last time Saudi Arabia armed ‘freedom fighters’, those fighters soon turned to terrorism. Third, saving Homs now might just prolong the fighting and lead to more bloodshed in the end.
But others have a more emotional response to Homs’ courage and suffering. The rebels, supporters say, are brave men and women, daring to stand up for freedom against tyranny. Surely they deserve to be given a chance as they fight for their lives?
- Should Syria’s rebels be given heavy weapons?
- Is there any place for emotion in foreign policy decisions?
- Research project: compare the situation in Syria now with the situation in Libya this time last year. Write down a list of five key differences – or similarities – between the two cases.
- Divide the class into three groups. Each group should try to come up with the strongest argument they can for one of three options: 1. A full-scale international intervention in Syria; 2. Secret help for the opposition (e.g. by arming rebels or sending special forces); 3. More diplomatic efforts and sanctions to persuade Assad to step down. Each group gets to make a short presentation before the everyone votes to chose which course of action they would recommend.
Some People Say...
“Weapons of war never do anyone any good.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- You say this war could go beyond Syria’s borders?
- Yes. The Syrian conflict has divided both regional and global superpowers. Within the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is backing the rebels while Assad is backed by Iran. The Saudis and the Iranians could easily come to blows.
- And at the global level?
- The rebels are supported by the US and Europe, while Assad has strong support from Russia and some backing from China too. The argument over Syria is having a terrible effect on US-Russia relations, and although no on is thinking about open war, various forms of ‘cold conflict’ – like sabotage or covert operations – cannot be ruled out.
- A drone is an unmanned aircraft, usually used for reconnaissance on the battlefield. It is thought that this drone must have been supplied to the Syrian army by a foreign backer, possibly Russia or Iran.
- A mortar is a small artillery piece designed to launch shells on a high arc over relatively short distances. Assad’s forces have been using mortars against Homs with devastating effects.
- Ruled out
- The Syrian regime has access to significantly more firepower than did deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, making foreign intervention in Syria a very risky prospect. More importantly, however, Russia and China have steadfastly vetoed any UN resolutions that might pave the way for military action.
- Turned to terrorism
- During the 1980s, Saudi Arabia and the US poured millions into efforts to help Afghan freedom fighters expel an occupying Russian army from Afghanistan. Some of those fighters went on to become the Taliban; others, the terrorist group al Qaeda.